Simmering with anger and defiance, Donald Trump returned to the safe space of Mar-a-Lago and his loyal supporters on Tuesday night, seeking to turn his status as an accused criminal into a political war cry.
The former president ignored a plea from the judge in the case to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, even launching a broadside at the judge’s daughter over her political connections.
Trump flew back to Florida from New York, where prosecutors had accused him of orchestrating hush-money payments to cover up claims of affairs before the 2016 election. Sitting in a Manhattan court, Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony counts of falsifying business records.
But on the evening of a sombre day for America and its judicial system, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination walked into the opulent ballroom at the Mar-a-Lago estate to the familiar strains of Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, a staple of his campaign rallies.
Supporters wore “Make America Great Again” and “Trump 2024” caps and snapped pictures of the president turned defendant. The audience included Trump’s son Eric and his wife, Lara, Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and pillow maker and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.
Wearing a blue suit, white shirt and red tie, and standing behind a lectern that said “Text Trump to 88022” amid an array of US flags, he portrayed himself as a political martyr.
“I never thought anything like this could happen in America,” Trump said. “I never thought it could happen. The only crime that I have committed is to fearlessly defend our nation from those who seek to destroy it.”
The Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, alleges that Trump – the first former president to face criminal charges – falsified business records to conceal a violation of election laws.
Payments were made to the adult film actor Stormy Daniels and the former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Another was made to a former Trump Tower doorman, $30,000 to buy the rights to an untrue story about a child fathered out of wedlock.
Trump appeared subdued as he pleaded “not guilty” but at Mar-a-Lago felt liberated to protest his innocence and lash out with typical invective, saying “our country is going to hell”.
He described Bragg, an elected Democrat, as “a local failed district attorney charging a former president of the United States for the first time in history on a basis that every single pundit and legal analyst said there is no case.
“There’s no case. They kept saying there’s no case. Virtually everyone. But it’s far worse than that because he knew there was no case.”
Some experts have said Bragg might have to rely on untested legal theories but few have said he has no case at all.
Trump added: “The criminal is the district attorney because he illegally leaked massive amounts of grand jury information for which he should be prosecuted or, at a minimum, he should resign.”
In court, prosecutors requested protective orders for discovery materials, including Trump’s incendiary posts on his Truth Social platform, including a warning of “death and destruction” if he should be indicted. The judge, Juan Merchan, advised Trump: “Please refrain from making statements that are likely to incite violence or civil unrest.”
But in his prime-time address, there was no sign Trump was prepared to modify his rhetoric. He assailed Merchan, claiming: “I have a Trump-hating judge with a Trump-hating wife and family whose daughter worked for Kamala Harris.”
In fact Merchan’s daughter, Loren, is a partner at a digital campaign strategy agency that has worked for many prominent Democrats, including Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the 2020 election.
Trump addressed multiple other cases against him, including an investigation into his attempt to interfere in the election in Georgia.
“In the wings they’ve got a local racist Democrat district attorney in Atlanta who is doing everything in her power to indict me over an absolutely perfect phone call,” he claimed, referring to a call in which he was recorded asking state Republicans to overturn the result.
Trump also went into a lengthy denunciation of the investigation of his mishandling of classified materials at Mar-a-Lago. “They’re looking at me through the Espionage Act of 1917, where the penalty is death,” he said.
He described the special counsel, Jack Smith, as a “lunatic” and complained: “Our justice system has become lawless. They’re using it now – in addition to everything else – to win elections.”
Trump could not resist reverting to his usual campaign stump speech, railing against Democrats’ handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, urban crime, the threat of a third world war, a military “gone woke” and high inflation.
He listed baseless grievances including “impeachment hoax number one”, “impeachment hoax number two”, “millions of votes illegally stuffed into ballot boxes” and Hunter Biden’s laptop which, he claimed, “exposes the Biden family as criminals”.
There is no evidence to support that assertion.
The indictment has led to a surge of support for Trump in Republican polls and a surge in cash donations. But many commentators are sceptical about whether Trump could prevail in a general election.
The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, said in a statement: “Tonight at Mar-a-Lago we saw a paranoid and delusional speech cheered on by fanatical cult members who do not care about democracy and American values. Trump got the circus he wanted. The rest of the GOP has fallen in line.”
Bill Burton, a former White House deputy press secretary under Barack Obama, was also unimpressed.
“This is the worst I’ve ever seen Trump,” he tweeted. “I watch all of his speeches – saw him ramble in Waco, watched him ramble in his ‘announcement’ to run again – this is the very worst of it. Puffy face, bloodshot eyes, his precious hair a mess. And his cadence just plain sad.”
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